A Conversation Between Stephen Harrigan and Lisa Reed, former NASA Team Lead
Lisa Reed: One aspect of your book that I found interesting given that I had worked at the Johnson Space Center was how well you captured the ordinary, everyday aspects of what it is like to work in a field that is anything but ordinary. Your characters depicted this perfectly– especially the inner struggles that can arise from being a common person working in a profession that’s quite uncommon. How were you able to do that?
Stephen Harrigan: I embarked upon this book with the assumption that people feel more or less the same emotions, and experience more or less the same conflicts, whether they work in an ordinary profession or an exalted one. I knew it would be a challenge to get the details of the space program right, but since I was a magazine writer for much of my career, intensive research is second nature to me. So I spent a lot of time at the Johnson Space Center in Houston and at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, talking to people and hanging out and trying to understand how this particular world works. But a novelist can only learn so much through research. At some point, you just have to start feeling your way into the characters. And I knew I wanted the central character of my book to be a woman and a mother who is torn between her lifelong dream of going into space and her earthbound responsibilities toward her children. I remember a crucial moment, early in my research, when I asked you if such a character was even plausible. The fact that you smiled a knowing smile and said, "Oh, yes," was an immense relief to me.
LR: I remember your asking me if your scenario sounded feasible. And I remember thinking it would be great it you could really capture that aspect of it since most books and movies about astronauts don't focus on the human, day-to-day side of that profession. They seem to focus on the technical side of missions and the problems that can and do arise. So what made you want to write a book that did bring the topic "down to earth" so to speak--and one about a female astronaut at that?
SH: About five years ago I drove down to Houston from my home in Austin to visit some family members who live in Clear Lake City, the suburb where the Johnson Space Center is located. I was standing on the sidelines at my niece's soccer game when my sister called my attention to a woman nearby, who was cheering on her own daughter. "Do you see that woman?" my sister asked me. "Last week she was in space." It was just a stunning thought to me. How do you reconcile-- in your mind, in the logistics of your daily life--such two radically different identities? And I think I was struck at a vulnerable personal level by this idea, since it has sometimes seemed important to me, in my career and my life, to seek out and experience marginal doses of high adventure. I never put myself in any real danger, but I was a husband and father of three girls, and the question "Do I have the right to do this?" was always hovering in the back of my mind. So in a minor-key way I think I understand the call to adventure and the emotional cost that it exacts.
LR: During your research into the book, what was your impression of the people you met who worked in the program other than the astronauts-- like the trainers or mission controllers? Anything that surprised you or was contrary to what you thought they would be like?
SH: In the back of my mind was the central-casting image: guys with flat-tops, accountants' glasses, and pocket protectors. But I don't have to tell you how antiquated that stereotype is. Many of the trainers and controllers are women, for one thing. People dress much as they dress in every other business, that perpetual casual-Friday look that has pretty much taken over American workplaces. (Although there seems to be a surprising degree of latitude at the Johnson Space Center: one guy in the tool room at the Neutral Buoyancy Lab had a very impressive collection of tattoos.) And I was genuinely impressed by how agreeable everybody was and how, unlike that other lingering stereotype that clings to engineering types--unimaginative, boringly methodical--how enthusiastic people were at the prospect of helping me make stuff up for a fictional story.
But what really struck me most profoundly about the trainers and controllers and astronauts was how normal and familiar their lives seemed. As I began the book, I started to realize that what excited me even more than writing about space was writing about the earth my characters inhabited. As invigorating as it was to describe a launch, it was just as much fun to write about carpools and fast food restaurants and shopping malls. And as I made my way through the novel I began to see that I had to depict these things with as much energy and specificity as I depicted space flight, because that's really what Challenger Park is about: the way we are pulled in our lives between the normal and the exotic.
LR: I just want to go on the record to say that I have never owned a pocket protector. I’m quite proud of that! One reviewer described your character Walt "as a window into the specifics of the NASA world". Tell us about Walt. And in your view, was he a window into the NASA world for your readers? If so, in what way?
SH: I never consciously thought of Walt as a window into NASA for readers, but I knew I wanted a character who could stand in contrast in some way to the space-bound overachievers of the astronaut corps. I wanted there to be room at the heart of the book for a normal person, the kind of character you don't encounter so much in fiction: someone who's not particularly good-looking, doesn't wear fashionable clothes or drive an interesting car, doesn't have an attitude or an outlaw mentality--but upon whom other people depend for their lives. We live in a culture increasingly besotted with celebrity and a kind of puerile sexiness, and I liked the idea of having a central character who is fundamentally unimpressed by all that. Also, Walt's job--the same team lead job you had–seemed interesting and fun and crucial to me. I remember the first time I came to visit you to in the simulator control room. You were standing at your console wearing a headset, facing the members of your training team who were in turn facing their own consoles, monitoring the astronauts in the simulator. You were so calm and so obviously in charge you reminded me of an orchestra conductor. As a writer, sitting in a room by myself day after day, I'm not in charge of anything and I'm not a part of a team, so it was fun to imagine what it would be like to be directing a shared enterprise of such grave importance. I also felt that it would be a dereliction of my duty as a novelist to focus this book only on the astronauts, the star players of the space program.
LR: I remember that first time I met you, when a NASA public affairs rep brought you into the simulator at the Johnson Space Center. It was probably your first exposure to how the astronauts are trained and to the people charged with training them. You mentioned what you thought about me, but what were your initial impressions that day of the simulator, the process of training the astronauts, the building? Was it what you were expecting?
SH: What struck me more than anything was the sense of calm, the seeming lack of any hurry. We're conditioned to thinking of space flight as perpetual drama, as one moment of crisis management after the next. But on an average day it seemed to me that NASA has the pace of an insurance company or an accounting firm. But the odd thing about the Johnson Space Center is that one moment you're walking through an ordinary office, with cubicles and computers stations, and the next doorway you pass through leads to another world entirely: a gargantuan hangar-like space filled with full-scale mockups of the shuttle and the space station. So, at least to an outsider, there's a certain make-believe quality to the place. It's like being on a movie set.
Okay, my turn to ask a question: what is it like to work with astronauts day after day, for months and even years at a time, knowing that when launch day arrives there's a risk--a pretty significant risk--that they may not be coming back?
LR: I won’t lie. It is a very rewarding and fun job despite the long hours and hard work. Each instructor goes through progressive certifications to be able to teach different spacecraft systems to the astronauts. This ultimately culminates in a certification allowing an instructor to train astronauts in the simulator which means that not only can you train the astronauts that may come through for generic training sessions, but that you can actually be assigned to train a mission from start to finish. Reaching that level can take years of training for the instructor so it’s pretty much a huge personal milestone to get that certification under your belt.
For me, working with the astronauts day after day always brought a new challenge because no two people are alike in how they learn. As students, the astronauts were obviously very intelligent and accomplished and they were going to eventually get to fly in space---so the lack of motivation a teacher might have with some students was not a factor for me. All of us, the astronauts and the instructors, know the risks of spaceflight and there was always the possibility that when they ventured forth they might not come back. No one really talks about it, except sometimes jokingly to cut the tension, but we all know that we are training them to be able to handle any situation that might arise during their mission. The hope is that what we train them to do will help them complete their mission and if a bad situation arises it will be a problem that they were trained to fix. And, in doing what they were trained they will be able to return safely home. I think the hardest part is that the longer I trained astronauts the better I got to know them as people. In some instances they became my friends–I knew their families, socialized with them, attended church with them–so it made it more difficult to balance the feelings of being a stoic participant in a very technical process with my deep affection for these people I'd spent so much of my time with. So as the years of doing that job passed, I felt that my job was more and more significant. This wasn't just an astronaut we were training; it was someone's mom, dad, son, daughter, brother or sister. I felt an additional obligation to train them even better because of that. It made me a better instructor. Unfortunately, over the years, I have lost some of those friends. I can honestly tell you that no matter how well you think you have prepared yourself for that inevitable possibility, when it happens you are never ready to hear the news. It doesn’t hurt any less because you knew it was risky. You grieve the loss with your colleagues, family, and friends- and since space travel captures public attention, you also grieve with the nation and the world. Then you move on to find the problem, fix it and get back into space again---it is the best way to honor their legacy and the legacy of the program.
SH: I got an inkling of how high the emotional stakes must be for you and your colleagues after the Columbia disaster, which occurred when this book was halfway written. I seriously thought about abandoning it at that point, because writing a make-believe story seemed suddenly trivial and vaguely improper when viewed against this shattering real-life event. When I finally gave myself permission to continue, I remember calling you and not hearing back for several months. That was obviously a time of intense personal grief for you, but I wonder if it was a questioning time as well--if you were trying to sort out the values and risks of manned space flight, and whether or not you wanted to remain a part of it.
Lisa: I think the fact that I don't even remember your calling says much about the state of mind I was in at the time. There seem to be many events from that period that are just gone. I remember just feeling adrift for a long time and that the world I knew had been irrevocably changed forever. Early on I had dreams where I would be in a darkened movie theater and the lights would go up and I would run into the one of the Columbia crew members and say their name and express how relieved I was that they had survived. They were usually in the theater with their family members. I suppose my brain was trying to reconcile the loss. Then there were nightmares that followed. I threw myself into my work and just never stopped because if I ever slowed down and got quiet long enough the grief and the thoughts were right there. But you are right. It was a time of intense personal grief. I think for me it was compounded by the fact that I was asked to work on the Columbia accident investigation about 2 weeks after it happened. In order to do that, I parked away the grief because I knew I couldn't do a good job of helping them investigate the accident if I was too emotional. In hindsight, that was probably not a good thing for me because I didn't really grieve the loss until well over a year later. There was a questioning period in there however. Not only were those good people dead, but the program was in jeopardy, and many people’s livelihoods hung in the balance. It was a tumultuous time for us all. I remember thinking just how large a span this grief had–everyone I knew from NASA was grieving. I began to wonder if human spaceflight was worth it, when cast against the devastation following the accident. But I think in the long run, we were all resolved that it must go on. Humans are curious by nature and exploring is at our core. To not take the risk means to not venture forth in search of new discoveries. I think all of the folks involved think it should continue, but some decided that while they could support it, they didn’t necessarily want to be a part of it again because those losses are so hard to take. Time makes it easier, but I know that I will never forget. 2006 was the 20th anniversary of the Challenger accident. Many of the people in the program at the time of that accident were interviewed on the many shows and in articles commemorating that event. Most said that not a day has gone by for them in those 20 years that they didn't think about the crew or the accident. It definitely has an impact of those who experienced it. I don't think it will be any different for me or my colleagues.
SH: After researching and writing this book, I came away as a cautious supporter of manned space flight. But after spending so long looking at the space program through the eyes of my characters, it's hard not to be ambivalent. We are now embarked, or at least seem to be embarked, on a new phase of space exploration, with a specific back-to-the-future goal--a return to the moon and a voyage to Mars--while at the same time there is a lot of energy and new thinking coming out of the private sector. But I can't help feeling a little wistful that for Lucy and the other characters in Challenger Park these new initiatives will have come too late. The people in my book are trapped in what seems to me a poignant historical moment. They are aware of the devastating risks for themselves and their families but unsure of the ultimate point of the enterprise for which those risks are run. They are not trying to beat the Soviets into space, they are not going to the moon, they are not going to Mars, and the shuttles they are flying in are being phased out. They're putting their lives on the line for an antiquated vision, for a purpose that does not seem urgent and about which the public hardly cares anymore. I had to think, as I was writing the book, that astronauts in this confusing period might begin to feel that they had missed their moment, which they were on the wrong side of history. Did any of the astronauts you worked with ever express that sort of frustration to you--or did I just--gulp--make it up?
LR: Wow, that’s a great question! And not an easy one to answer unfortunately because I believe there are two sides to the answer about human spaceflight. One is the political side of how we got the space program we have and one is the personal side of each individual astronaut that led them to want to be an astronaut. To answer you’re question point blank: no, I’ve never had any of the astronauts I worked with ever express any frustration that they had missed their moment in history. That doesn’t mean they didn’t have those feelings–they just didn’t express them to me. I think that is because each of them in a personal way wants to experience actually going into space–the launching from earth, the weightlessness and seeing views and doing things that very few humans ever have an opportunity to experience. Who doesn’t want to experience something so extraordinary? I think even the people here on Earth who say they wouldn’t want to be an astronaut say so because of the risk involved.
As for the ambivalence of purpose –that lingering question of why we have the shuttle at all. Well, that’s the political side. The human spaceflight program was born out of the politics of its era–the Cold War and tensions with the Soviets. While that has changed, the shuttle we have today is also a product of politics. Put shortly, it has become a panacea for all our space needs. It was going to put humans in space, deliver military and commercial payloads, and it was going to be reusable so it would be cost-effective. This was done in order to get political support, which would help secure funding so we could actually continue with the next major project after Apollo. Unfortunately, a lot of the design changes needed to do all those things also made it more expensive to maintain and operate amongst other things, which limited what we could do in the way of exploration. I think when history closes the books on the shuttle program, some will call it a mistake. But I believe it has not all been for naught. The knowledge that we have gained in actually doing space operations such as spacewalking and assembling large structures in space, rendezvous and proximity operations, how humans adapt and live in space, robotics, and other in-flight techniques have all been honed in the last 25 years of flying the shuttle. What our spaceflight operations personnel have learned, both in space and on the ground, during the shuttle program, will undoubtedly help us in future endeavors.
As for the commercial entrepreneurs who are trying to find a way to put the everyday people in space, I am pulling for them. Going into space shouldn’t be just the domain of a few selected by government agencies–it should be open to all humans who are willing and who can pay for a ticket, so to speak. So maybe one day it will come to pass. And I know that many of the astronauts I have spoken to do feel the same about that. Just about every astronaut I ever trained who returned told me something to the effect of “I wish you could have been there” or “I wish we could have taken you with us” because as they said their descriptions and the pictures they brought back just didn’t do it justice.
You know, Steve, your book really captured in some subtle ways many of the things we’ve talked about here. So I have to ask you, other than the shear entertainment of reading a good book, is there anything you hope your readers will take away from your story of Lucy, Walt, Brian and the others in Challenger Park?
SH: I guess the honest answer is that, like a lot of writers, I begin a book for reasons I can never quite articulate. Something--a feeling, a landscape, a memory, an overheard fragment of conversation, the way somebody walks or smiles --will set off a chain reaction in my imagination, and after a while a story will grow out of it. In the case of Challenger Park, I was sort of bewitched by the fine line between the extraordinary and the mundane, and by the different kinds of courage that people are called upon to possess, whether that courage is needed in the service of high-risk exploration or in the less-spectacular challenges of just living a decent life. More than anything, I wanted readers to feel that what I wrote was true--both in terms of the emotional lives of the characters and in the specifics of the world they inhabit. In some parts of the book I could draw on my own intuition and experiences, but there were big sections where I needed to be guided by research and--beyond the research--by imagination. There's no way, for instance, to authoritatively describe what it feels like to blast off in the space shuttle or to look down upon the earth from orbit if you haven't done those things. For that, I had to start with interviews and reading, but then take the presumptuous step of shoehorning my consciousness into those situations and calling upon whatever memories I had of being afraid or being enraptured to make the descriptions as complete and credible as I could. But without your guidance, and that of the other people I talked to at the Johnson Space Center, my imagination would have had no launching pad. So thanks again, Lisa, for all your help along the way and for your insights during this discussion.
LR: Thank you, Steve.